How to exploit your termite work force

One of permaculture’s big ideas is makig plants and animals your agricultural labourers.  It’s not so much hitching the family Great Dane to the plough as letting your furred and feathered workers, more or less of their own free will, roam through your food forest grazing on weeds and wolfing down snails.  Say goodbye to tedious annual seed-raising, planting and hoeing: your self-reliant plants will look after themselves and keep an eye on each other, shading and nitrogenating and breaking wind (if you know what I mean).

Sometimes it works.  Our tamarillo, banana, monstera and tumeric plants have formed a chlorophyllerous collective. We have tip-pruning possums, chickens that mow the lawn and do the weeding, rat-catching diamond pythons and bandicoots on a search and destroy mission for curl grubs.  This week I even had a local katydid offering to supervise the manufacture of my home-grown pesto.

Unfortunately some of the local flora and fauna seem to have skipped crucial pages of Bill Mollison’s permaculture classics.  My custard apple tree, for instance, appears to need assistance to shed its leaves in a timely manner. Really, has it come to this? I spend my precious hours of leisure depilating fruit trees?

Meanwhile in the kiwifruit arbor, lacking both enthusiastic pollinators and RoboBees (yep, New Zealand has them), we’re having to take a prurient interest in the sex lives of our male and female kiwifruit vines. To be honest, my child labourers were about as useful as the diffident insects.  I’m baffled.  How could standing on the top of a ladder tickling plant reproductive organs with paintbrush fail to entertain?

The sorry state of my home-made kiwifruit planters remind me of another insect labour fail. Termites.  What can a permie do with them?

Thanks to our hippie ways, our place is a kind of termite nature reserve, where wood-eating insects can flourish, peacefully ingesting fruit trees and vernacular architecture, without fear of retaliation.  It seems, when they tired of consuming ad-hoc structures made of discarded bed bases, they like to break it up by devouring whole stands of artichokes as a kind of palate cleanser.

Termite eat artichokes – who knew?  Last year’s gorgeous silver leafed statement in the outdoor room is this year a soggy larvae-infested hole in the ground.

But let’s not lose faith in our insect workforce!  We need to reframe this problem. Bill Mollison once consoled someone tending a denuded garden: “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficit“.  Thinking along these lines let’s put it this way: we don’t have a termite problem: we have a woodwork surplus.

When we first arrived here six years ago, we were puzzled by the gratuitous decking around the washing line and the apparently pointless wooden walkway that took you there.  Our neighbours said they’d scratched their heads as they watched this expensive folly being nailed together.

The mystery was illuminated by the lingering damp patch by the garden gate.  Somewhere between the fig tree and the passionfruit vine, roundabout where the sewage line runs down from the house, there was a persistent and troubling damp patch.  RB wanted to investigate.  Having experienced the delights of sewage tumbling through another backyard and with a terrifying vision of a poo fountain raining down on my veggie patch, I implored him to leave it to the professionals.  But I made the error of leaving him unattended one day after work.

Thankfully I was spared the realisation of my nightmare of e-coli amongst the asparagus.  It turns out our damp patch was an old storm water drain, busted through when the some new and exciting toilet was installed in the house.  As one does, rather than repair the drain and desoggify the garden, our predecessors just built a walkway over the swampland.  What with the convenient supply of moisture, this wooden path has been a fine buffet for the termites over the years.

Thanks to our cellulose loving friends, a short stroll to hang out the laundry had become as fraught with peril as a high-wire walk between two sky scrapers.  Collecting a clean pair of undies from the line carried the ever-present risk of a broken ankle or at least the embarrassing prospect of a plank snapping under your weight, a reminder that you may have had too many marinated artichokes on your pasta lately. Yes, I could have fixed it properly with some decent hardwood or a load of treated timber.  But that just wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the thing.  Instead, it’s become steadily more raddled looking, thanks to running repairs with a random selection of timber found by the side of the road.

But even with my love of hammers and heavy rubbish, I finally had enough.  The walkway had to go.  Even in 35 degree heat, the demolition job was a highpoint of my weekend.  There’s little more viscerally satisfying than ripping something to bits with your bare hands, even if it has been fatally weakened by termites first.

But what to do with the hardwood footings, cemented and bolted in place?  Digging them up would be tricky work, haunted by the ever-present risk of a spade through the sewage pipe.  And then it came to me in a blinding flash: with a bit of help from our termite tenants, moist soil heaped up onto wood frames would do the job for me.

So now the erstwhile walkway is a (very very slightly) raised bed, fenced in by scraggy aviary wire: yet another addition to the carceral complex that is our garden.  As I water the cucumbers and the cherry tomatoes,  I’ll be helping our Willing Workers on Organic Farms Backyards, the termites, demonstrate the second law of thermodynamics.

It’s been a long time since I sat through high school physics.  Things might well have moved on in the inexplicable post-Newtonian world. But I can say with absolute confidence that, in our yard at least, there continues to be “a natural tendency of isolated systems to degenerate into a more disordered state”.

If they weren’t disordered in the first place, the termites, the possums and the brush turkeys would pretty soon make them that way.  Good work if you can get it, lads!

A dead-end trap crop

A “dead-end trap crop”: is it the germ of a new Dr Seuss tongue twister or a surplus insult from a John Cleese and Graham Chapman sketch?  Nope, it’s the my latest strategy for dealing with the beautiful but deeply irritating cabbage white butterfly.

I like to think of our choice of a garden on a steep, shady south west facing slope not so much a tragic error in garden planning but a deliberate strategy for replicating temperate conditions in a subtropical climate.  It wasn’t an inability to use a compass that led us here.  Absolutely not. Instead it was my cunning plan to produce home-grown raspberries.

This fantasy has been somewhat tempered by our brassica disappointments of recent years.

Radishes are considered to be idiot-proof and we’ve usually managed to get them to grow, if not to actually eat them.  I like the long-rooted daikons since there is a brief interregnum between germination and gnarly inedibility.  The daikon sits happily in the ground waiting for me to make sushi. If don’t get my act together in time, there’s always the lovely white flowers to look forward to.

This year’s bash at radishes hasn’t worked out quite so well, thanks to my innovative  (a.k.a. totally ineffective) strategy for keeping the chooks at bay – a mandala of brightly coloured children’s bicycle wheels.  Evidence, if you needed it, that (a) the Goddess doesn’t necessarily protect every vegetable sheltering in a life-enhancing spiral (b) chickens are definitely not supertasters.  In fact, apparently chickens only have about 300 taste buds, and they’re on the roof of their mouths, which may explain the chooks’ enthusiasm for eating polystyrene foam (“crack for chickens” as someone once put it on a backyard chicken forum).

I’m also a serial failure at growing brussel sprouts.  Perhaps they’re paying me back for all the bad-mouthing I gave them as a child.  I console myself with the thought that it’s a bit warm in Sydney for this member of the brassica family anyway. You need to start early – I’ve heard you need to have your seeds in by November if you want tidy looking mini-cabbages and not some kind of ad hoc freeform leafy thing.

I banged in some seedlings in autumn – I’m reserving judgement but at this stage I’m not optimistic.   The “bad hair day” of the plant pictured above may be a consequence of a close encounter with the repurposed wire drawer I was using to keep the bandicoots at bay.  Since the cure appears to be worse than the disease, and the bandicoot seems to share my childhood dislike of sprouts, I’m living on the edge and letting the brussels go commando. The wire drawer, along with a bisected fan-cover, is off to provide security and support to my newly planted swiss chard and salsify.  I’m hoping the look is more “frugal locavore’s organic garden” and less “disturbed hoarder’s junkyard” but I reckon it could go either way.

And now we turn to the Battle of the Bok Choi.

Over the years my passion for purple and anaemic lust for iron-rich veggies resulted in an epic struggle to produce a decent crop of my favourite asian green, Red Bok Choi.  Cabbage whites seem to share my enthusiasm.   Bok choi butterflies would seem a more apt (and alliterative) choice of name.

My first effort – a feeble attempt to conceal my pretties underneath the generous leaves of a (ultimately fruitless) zucchini –  underestimated the persistence and acute senses of your average crucifer-loving butterfly.  Interplanting with coriander was a break through.  In Sydney, you can harvest your coriander leaves for aroundabout ten minutes before your plant goes to seed.  Growing cilantro as a kitchen herb here is an essentially doomed enterprise.  That said, stinky old coriander leaves do seem to throw the insect pests right off their game.  There’s apparently a couple of genes that are implicated in some peoples’ deep distaste for cilantro – maybe that’s a part of the genome we share with bugs.

But this year’s lone self seeded bok choi is looking more perfect than last season’s coriander-defended efforts.  Is it the chilly weather? The location inside the repurposed chicken tractor/brush turkey and possum exclusion zone? or is it… (drumroll) the magic of the dead-end trap crop?

After my embittering exeriences with kale and marigolds, I’m a tiny bit skeptical about companion planting.  But given the cruel fate dished out to our broccoli by an evil alliance of brassica loving bugs and furry critters last year, I’d give anything a try to get a bit more broc to the table.

I’ve been growing land cress a while.  It was one of the few food crops I managed grow – in a polystyrene foam box parked by the outdoor dunny – in the concrete back court of my terrace house in the rainy British north-west, back in the day.  Here in Berowra, it flourished in a damp and shady patch next to the chook yard, giving us for two La Nina years an unending supply of the “house soup” – vicchysoise hotted up with landcress, jerusalem artichokes and zucchinis.  Flatulence-inducing but fabulous.  All in all, a great plant.

So when I heard that upland cress has the reputation as a Black Widow for a crucifer-loving insects I figured I’d give it another whirl.

Sacrificial or trap crops are tasty things used to distract bugs from your favoured plants.  Dead-end trap crops, on the other hand, lure insects away from the plants you want to protect and then kill them.  Land cress, it seems, contains the spicy-flavoured glucosinolates, prompting some moths to lay their eggs on its leaves where its caterpillars hatch, feast and die.  Gruesome but apparently effective.

The seeds I ordered from the ever-reliable Green Harvest were the familiar looking upland cress (Barbarea vernis).  Unfortunately, the variety of land cress (sometimes called winter cress or yellow rocket) that’s been been tested as a dead-end trap crop is  Barbarea vulgaris, a related, taller plant with similar yellow flowers but a less rounded leaf.

Barbarea vulgaris is resistant to another pestthe diamond back moth – which produces a smaller caterpillar that’s also a lover of brassicas (to identify whether you’ve got got a diamond-back larvae, give the grub a bit of a nudge – it will give a bit of a wiggle backwards.  But hopefully not leap up and punch you in the eye.)  It’s a bit less clear about whether winter cress is quite so deadly to cabbage whites.  And then there’s the vexed question of whether the landcress in my garden – barbarea vernis – does the same job.

But it’s all going swimmingly so far.  My land cress is unchewed, and my the kids have already turned their noses up at a couple of meals of home-grown broccoli.  I’m sure they’ll be pleased to find there’s loads more to come, not to mention heaping platefuls of mustard greens, land cress, kale and (with luck) brussel sprouts.

And so the time honoured tradition of intergenerational brassica torture continues…

Jailbreak!

Cucumbers will go to desperate lengths to flee an attack-flock of brush turkeys, eh?

So is it better to die fighting than live in chains?  I’m not sure where my zucchini would stand on this one.

I’ve managed to keep the plants alive under an ancient perforated veggie net, held up by a rusty drum stand and contorted steel reinforcing wire.  Shyla the Australorp sneaks through to lay the odd egg but so far the brush turkeys haven’t spotted an entry-point.  Which is lucky, because if they made it in, there’s no way they would ever find their way out again.  I’d arrive in the garden one morning to find a turkey skeleton splayed out underneath the enormous hole these leaves are bursting through.

The bees don’t seem to have found the great big holes in the netting either.  Or perhaps the local pollinators suffer from claustrophobia.  I’ve seen loads of male flowers but the little golden zucchinis just seem to wither on the vine.  I’m trying to figure out if it’s (a) the plant aborting seedless, non-fertilised fruit (b) blossom end rot, thanks to insufficient calcium (c) rampant powdery mildew, caused by constrained circumstances (d) despair induced by a life Inside or (e) all of the above.

It hasn’t been a good year for jam making, either.  Here’s the breba crop which was looking so lovely mid-winter. Not really worth setting aside a day in the kitchen for preserving this one.  On the right, “dried figs”, but not as we know them.  A few hot days saved me the cost of a dehydrator, but I’m not sure gastronomy is the winner here.

And a sad discovery this morning –  the lone survivor of my bumper crop of coyly fleshy persimmon flowers ripened, unattended, and was demolished overnight, probably by a young possum taking a leisurely midnight stroll from his summer house above the air conditioner in the granny flat.  Only a few days back I was thinking if might be time to wrap the precious persimmon in one of the net exclusion bags sitting neatly folded on the bench in the toolshed.

Zero tolerance, it seems, is the only solution.  Imprisoning the chickens is mean,  imprisoning the possums and the brush turkeys illegal.  Whereas imprisoning vegetables, pollination issues aside, seems to work quite well.

Small scale vegetable prisons seem to do the business for seedlings and your slender or ground hugging plants, but now I have the frame of an aged trampoline at my disposal, I’m thinking big. And I’ve started looking at the superannuated chook tractor with a new eye.

Yes, it has traditionally been Andy Ninja’s lofty sleeping quarters, but with a bit of dusting off, what a fine brush turkey exclusion zone it would make.  Perhaps, Andy, it’s time you reconsidered the virtues of Palm Beach, the vernacular modernist architectural masterpiece I painstakingly made you and your feathered friends a year ago, now sadly abandoned by every damn chicken in the flock.  Even the brush turkeys don’t try to sleep there.

Now there’s an idea: if the new improved carceral complex with its walk-in prisons doesn’t protect my veggies from assaults by poultry, maybe I should start planting them in the chook house.

Latchkey chicks

The local youth have been loitering around our place, nicking in without so much as a by-your-leave, cadging food and then disappearing as soon as the adults arrive with a basket of washing or a lawnmower (or a camera).

Normally at this time of year the offenders are brush turkey chicks, absurdly tiny and fluffy to be so completely unattended by any kind of parental figure.  Chooks the same age and size would be under the watchful eye of some stern motherly type, but brush turkey babies are the original latchkey chicks.  From the time they burrow their way out of the incubating mound, they’re on their own.

Brush turkey like to make their mounds where it’s really shady – 85-90% cover.  Our neighbours’ backyard is perfect and every now and then the little chicks squeeze through the fence  – or fly over it, something they can do from the time they’re only a few hours old – into our place.  This one doesn’t quite have the heft to work Grandpa’s foot-pedal activated chicken feeder, but it’s giving it a red hot go.

But this year the brush turkeys are not the only feckless youth about. One morning last week, I spotted two scrawny youngsters scuttling away behind the woodshed.  Two?  I’ve never seen a brush turkey babe with a buddy before.

It seems the neighbours’ pair of fledgeling Barnevelders occasionally like to slip away from their adoptive mum to rampage through our yard.  I was baffled by the sudden demolition of the “clucker tucker” patch –  a mix of tasty greens and seeds like bok choy, buckwheat,  clover, linseed, lucerne, millet, silverbeet and sunflower that I’d been carefully cultivating as a cover crop and future fodder supply.   Green Harvest’s website makes the droll comment that these plants “have vigorous root systems that will quickly regrow leaves that are cut or eaten”.  I’d carefully fenced it off from our own poultry demolition squad and the damage didn’t have that “visit from by a front end loader” look so characteristic of the work of brush turkeys so I was at something of a loss until I saw two sets of skinny dino-legs through a pullet-sized scrape under the fence.

I’m not sure what the allure of our backyard is.  I guess there are no handy bus shelters for the young team to hang out in around here, so our woodshed is the next best thing.  Recently I’ve seen one of the neighbour’s teenage chickens in the yard again, this time fraternising with an adolescent brush turkey. All fine and dandy, I’m sure (like any naive parent, I’m carefully not thinking about this kind of thing).

I’m taking tips on bringing up the kids from the chooks – the case for a free range childhood seems pretty sound to me.  So bring on the latchkey chicks!  I’m here to embrace the modern fowl – whether she be Alectura lathami or Gallus gallus domesticus – with her busy life as a working parent, and to celebrate her offspring’s initiative and spirit of independence. As long as the little fiends stay out of my silverbeet!

Pomegranates: a Christmas star turn

My little pomegranate, a variety called “Wonderful“, is living up to its name. The flowing scarlet flamenco skirts of the flowers don’t last very long, but in a kind of floral Eurovision stunt, once the maxidress is off, there they are in their nifty stellar mini.

Of course, just because they’re looking gorgeous now, doesn’t mean any of these beautiful budlets will go on to become proper grown-up fruit.  The tree struggled on for a few years in a pot, and only gave us our first taste of success when it finally went into the ground last year.  And festive as it is, I’m not sure what to read into the flurry of fallen starry frocks underneath the tree.

Apparently pomegranates don’t like humidity much, especially in the spring time. The rigorous raking its roots were getting from feathered visitors up until recently probably didn’t do much for it either.  I sorted out that problem by piling rocks and tiles on them – the pomegranate roots, that is, not the brush turkeys, although the thought of burying a turkey or two under an avalanche of bricks is pretty appealing.

I’m hopeful we’ll see a better crop this year.  A tree with a 5,000 year old history of cultivation has got to be tough as old boots, I reckon. Unsubstantiated rumour has it that the pomegranate may even have been the “apple” that Eve was tempted with by the diamond python of the Garden of Eden.  Surely a participant in that epic contest between good and evil (or at least, between nudity and a well supplied fruit bowl) will be able to handle a tussle with a chook or two.  With luck, in the spirit of this year’s glamorous bearded Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst, our feisty femme will “rise like a phoenix” above her stack of stones and discarded finery.

Plants in protective custody

Reflecting trends in Australia more broadly, the population behind bars in my garden is steadily increasing. The metaphor starts to break down there because my indigenous plants aren’t systematically and grotesquely over-represented in prison.  And it’s not collective punishment, more like protective custody.

Washing line vege netHere are some of the make-shift prisons keeping chooks and brush-turkeys at bay. Eventually I suspect I might just cage the whole veggie garden, as much to deflect the midsummer sun as to prevent raids by flying dinosaurs.  Some of our neighbours are already there, as you can see from this fabulous repurposing of a Hills Hoist.

In the mean time, I’m finding new and creative if not visually attractive ways of leveraging my pathological hoarding… from the tried and true bit of broken trellis…

… to recycled heavy rubbish finds.

So far mysterious steel objects from the side of the road 1: brush turkeys 0 (though not for want of trying).

There’s an array of objects yearning for landfill propping up veggie nets:

Old umbrella frame protecting salad greens

Old umbrella frame protecting salad greens

and then there’s the open prison: things surviving against the odds outside the fence that encloses the veggie garden.

Of course that’s making the assumption that the fence is high security. Somehow, I don’t think so:

Okay, my road-side finds are not quite quirky enough to function as garden ornamentation (I need to yarn bomb my umbrella!).  And I don’t think these pics will appear on Buzzfeed under “2014’s Best Organic Garden P*rn”.

Perhaps I should proudly locate my backyard in the fine tradition of rural homesteads featuring interactive museums of rusting Massey Fergussons and defunct Valiants, and in-situ galleries of op art reinterpreted in the language of car tyres, tarpaulins and giant piles of silage.

I’d like to flatter myself that the selling point of my carceral structures is functionality, rather than kerb appeal.  However, drawing on painful experience, I know there’s a strong possibility that around about the time my plantlets look like producing something edible, there’ll be a conspiracy between a brush turkey and a windy day and I’ll see roots wafting in the breeze.

Andy Ninja, cannibal chicken?

A good couple of years after apparently going through the “the change” and only a few months since she was regularly crowing at dawn, Andy Ninja’s back on the lay.  They’re not particularly beautiful eggs – sometimes crimped like they’ve been extracted with forceps or she’s stopped for a breather mid-lay; sometimes exceedingly delicate; often broken – but eggs nonetheless.  She seems to favour the long abandoned compost bin: quiet, private and less heavily policed by huffy uber-femmes than the nestbox.  And thanks to my laziness in the composted-cardboard-shredding department, eggs laid there are even honestly labelled.

At the very same time  Andy starts producing her miracle eggs, The Phantom Egg Eater has returned.  It’s a suspicious coincidence. The veteran, yearning for the good old days when she trotted up to the house to lay an egg a day, regular as clockwork.  The aging chicken willing to do anything to return to those glory days….

…anything… even taking other hens’ eggs… younger hens… pretenders to the throne… taking their lesser eggs and transmuting them, creating… yes!…. my very own marvellous eggs…

Okay, so I had fully worked up a vision of a tormented yet triumphant Andy Ninja, guiltily gorging herself, all to restore faded reproductive glory. But natural justice must be done: I needed proof.

In the quest to catch the egg eater in the act, I hot footed it to the bottom of the garden at the first triumphant cackle yesterday morning.   Andy is just lifting herself off a still-warm mid-life egg.  This one’s intact and I’ve stolen it before she has a chance have any kind of peck.  She retreats, a picture of innocence. Content of the paragraph

Suspicious andy cropped

Andy walks straight past the pre-damaged plastic egg in the least favoured laying spot – the old lawn mower catcher under the granny flat. Only used in moments of desperation.

But here’s a plot twist: as soon as Andy leaves the compost bin, Shyla the Australorp moseys in.  Is she settling down to lay?  No – moments later she reappears, looks around (are any witnesses?), and darts away.  So it’s Shyla!

But wait! A minute or two later, Luna the Barred Rock arrives on the scene, ducks into the compost bin, peers about and then pops out again.  Nothing to see here.

Oh my god!  They’re all at it. It’s like Murder on the Orient Express!

I need a plan.

Someone on a backyard chicken forum recommended a strategy for dealing with egg-eaters:  fill a cracked egg with hot English mustard.  The culprit will gulp down what it thinks is the yolk and learn its lesson rather sharply.

No English mustard in the house, just a rather toothsome wholegrain French. And no broken egg.  So why not cover one of the plastic ones with mustard and do a bit of pre-emptive operant conditioning?  It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Only I forgot: the chooks like to snuggle up to the fake eggs as they settle down to lay, scooting their little plastic treasures from one side of the nestbox to the other if need be.  With their beaks.  I race down to the henhouse to find Luna and Treasure looking they’ve just eaten their first vindaloo.  I do the only thing an empathetic chicken keeper would: given them a cooling slice of watermelon*.

So, chicken tongues soothed. But I’m still no closer to bringing to justice the Egg Eater.

This morning Andy popped out a broken egg, so it’s back to a more standard use of the mustard technique.  We still don’t have English mustard so it’s a pretty disturbing looking yolk – if chooks are anything like as smart as animal behaviour researchers say they are they wouldn’t touch it with a 40 foot pole.

This time there’s no sign of repeat offenders panting in the evening breeze.  But by nightfall the egg and its condimenticality have disappeared entirely.   No shell fragments.  No spillage.

Now, it is possible that the hens as a group are very very tidy eaters with a surprising love of spicy flavours.   Alternatively, maybe somewhere nearby there’s a diamond python with a serious stomach ache.

*Okay, rather suffering from mustard-mouth, Luna and Treasure might have simply been hot, since chickens don’t sweat and it was a steamy old day.  Did I mention that chicken breathe using air sac that extend into their bones?!!? Oh yes, I did.  Well, they also maintain a consistent temperature by dumping heat into those air sacs (and connected pneumatic bones).  Dinosaurs probably did it that way too… according to Mathew J Wedel in “Vertebral pneumaticity, air sacs, and the physiology of sauropod dinosaurs” Paleobiology 29(2) 2003 pp.243-55. 

Literally and figuratively cool….